Sliding Down the Saddle – Descent of Mount Baker – Part 3

Just a little the worse for wear

My goal of cranking out our entire Mount Baker trip in a few weeks has been waylaid by work, as so many things tend to be. But fear not; we haven’t been stuck on the summit forever – we did in fact make a not very elegant but nonetheless effective descent.

One thing I inadvertently omitted from the account of our trip up to the summit was the eerie, almost tropical breeze that accompanied us at the beginning of our summit night. It was a harbinger because heat was the theme of the way down.

Of course, the first challenge of the descent was to reverse our way down the Roman Wall. As the smallest of our team of four, I was assigned the front of the rope, which meant I had the responsibility for picking out the footsteps we would follow on the way down. I had last led a rope line on Mt Elbrus and I was terrified as guide S short roped us (so he could control the rope better) and I cast a look down at the truly steep slope before me. He’d done the same short rope up the Roman Wall as well, which gives you some inkling of its incline.

It was much harder to get into a steady pace on the switchbacks on the way down, as we had very varying speeds on descent. To my surprise, the really vertical part was actually easier than the switchbacks – it required a boot plunge into already carved steps that you slid into – some almost 18 to 24 inches – but they felt fairly secure. The only problem was that so many other ice axes had already traveled that way when you dug your axe in you were just as likely to hit an existing hole and get absolutely no purchase.

I’d forgotten how much I liked leading a rope. The Roman Wall demanded absolute concentration and my legs felt shaky at times – nerves – but that complete absorption in the moment is one of the things I love best about mountain climbing (and glaciers, in particular). As our guide said – every step had to be purposeful. I’m afraid there are no photos of this. My hands were otherwise occupied.

Not quite sure about this angle but this is what it felt like

We made it down the Roman Wall in decent time and then reversed positions and I was now at the end of a long rope. Our guide, SH, was concerned about speed because temperatures were climbing and water was getting low also. Apparently my Florida heat training helped because I got down with water to spare.

But this is where the different trekking speeds really slowed us down. If I went too fast the rope would pool around J’s legs and he’d trip so I had to keep stopping and we never got a good downward rhythm going. It took almost five hours to get down (recall it had taken about eight to ascend), and it was an enormous relief once we could unrope and slip and slide down the last little bit.

Crevasses presented a few adventures on the way down also. The glacier is always moving and the cracks in the snow were no longer where they were or the same width. In fact, although I didn’t see it, T reports to me that M had a “crevasse crash.” The snow at the edge of one deep crevasse had gotten slushier, and you needed to dig in your crampons before hopping across it to get traction. As M approached, she couldn’t get a good foothold, and, worried about breaking her leg if one foot slipped in, chose to dive headfirst across the crevasse with full momentum. According to T, she quickly uprighted herself, sat up, and started laughing.

Back in camp everyone was exhausted. Poor J was still enduring whatever stomach issue was plaguing him, and M was also having to cope with feeling unwell. We had a latish dinner of spaghetti and needless to say, all were asleep at an extremely early hour.

Next up – the hike out, the miracle of my mountaineering boot drop, and had I actually gotten myself lost somewhere on the trail system of Mount Baker.

Into Saddle and Onto Summit – Mount Baker Part 2

The first night of our expedition was the coldest of our three camping nights, and my feet never got warm. For some unknown reason I had failed to wear socks.

But the day dawned bright and sunny. This was to be our rest and training day. We were treated to a non oatmeal breakfast of surprisingly good scrambled eggs from a powder, topped with cheese and turkey bacon jerky. Who knew. SH had dispensed packets of instant oatmeal to everyone for the remaining days, which led to great confusion as to who had the right number of packets and what that number was. He’d also doled out lunches for the next days – wraps that we were already calling salami bombs and I’m sure they added to the weight of my pack.

A view from our tent – that steep bank in the distance is the Roman Wall

After a leisurely breakfast we donned crampons and climbed up the nearby snow bank. There we proceeded to practice movement on the snow (duck feet, French technique), self arrest (flip your ice axe around, pick side down, plant it, dig in with your knees and feet, hips raised, and kick), and movement on a rope with a team. It had been four years so I was glad of the practice. M, one of the folks from Canada,was definitely the most adventurous on the self arrest practice – she picked up a lot of speed as she simulated her fall down the slope. J and I were a bit more cautious.

We spent the afternoon reading, napping, and prepping our packs for a 1 a.m. wake up call. I also spent quite a bit of time observing our comrades from other groups – campgrounds are second only to airports for people watching.

We had an early dinner of rice, orzo, the ubiquitous salami chunks, followed by a sunset walk, and were in “bed” by 8. Needless to say, sleep was hard to come by, but I know I must have drowsed off, waking about five minutes before the alarm, just in time to force down my two packets of instant oatmeal. At least we also had dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate chips to add to them.

We finally started off at 2:15 a.m., only 15 minutes after our appointed time. Slow was definitely a theme of this trip – after all, it was referred to as the “slow Baker” expedition in the marketing materials. But let me also add a little flavor. Of our five merry climbers, only M, J and I had worn crampons before, and M had not done so for years. T (friend of absent S) and TF (the other person from Canada) had never worn them. So all in all, I think we made a pretty good showing.

It’s always spooky to take off in the dark, accompanied only by the glow of the headlamps, but the air was perfectly still and I was hiking in only a soft shell jacket. We started off with our crampons on – which was great as we avoided the agony of having to struggle getting them on somewhere on the glacier in the dark.

After about 45 minutes we crossed a rocky area with a bit of scrambling and it was time to rope up – we were well onto the glacier. SH led a rope with J, T and me; H led the other rope with M and TF. Z and C were on their own rope. Z did decide to wear something other than his kilt for the summit day.

I could feel myself slipping into that zen like state of a steady pace where focusing on putting one foot in front of the other is the only thing in your head. I’ve so frequently channeled our guide Ossy’s instruction to me on Cotopaxi in Ecuador that you have to find your own way up a mountain. This time I also repeated SH’s mantra – step purposefully. Surprising how these mountain directions do a lot for everyday life.

The trail was moderately sloped with a couple of flat platforms at 7000 and then at 8000 feet. There weren’t a lot of other groups but we were passed by some who were huffing and puffing – my goal was not to do that! The sun eventually rose and we could see the shadow of the mountain cast along the valley.

There were any number of crevasses that we had to wind our way around or step over, sometimes with the help of a snow bridge and sometimes without. The widest was perhaps 18 inches. They are eerie. You can see blue ice lining the sides and no bottom, and it looks like a fall would usher you into some completely other world.

The crater

We ultimately reached the crater. The mountain is still an active volcano but I wasn’t really aware of any sulfur; it certainly wasn’t anything like Cotopaxi. I was conserving my energy so didn’t walk over to look into it, but I did enjoy my salami bomb. I was making a big point of eating a lot as I know in the past I have failed to do so and that does not work well in the mountains. In the meantime, I learned later that both J and M were feeling unwell, but what troopers! They soldiered on without a word of complaint and still with appreciation of what we were experiencing.

Finally we reached the so-called Roman Wall, unclear why it was so named, but it provided the source for a running series of jokes about the ancient Romans and their visit to Mount Baker. The Roman Wall is indeed steep; it is really the head wall of the mountain and considered the crux – that is, the hardest part. It’s the part I’d been dreading. It averages about 40 degrees according to what I’ve read, and starts at about 9750 feet.

The first part is a series of switchbacks that nicely ameliorated the steep slope. I’ve always said you can climb most anything with enough switchbacks. But near the top, they cease and there’s a straight vertical climb. Kick into the step of the person before you, step up, and repeat. Twenty five or so straight up feet of this. A few more switchbacks and suddenly you’re back on a relatively flat area with the summit not far away.

The summit is a small 50 foot high or so mound that protrudes off the flat area. Unfortunately I kept having the image of a pimple, which does not appropriately capture the grandeur of the view or experience. We all collapsed for a few minutes and I took my obligatory yoga pictures – but couldn’t wait to start up the final steps to the summit. It was about 8 hours since we’d started our jaunt.

The views were spectacular, as the photos show. And I once again had that top of the world feeling, that exhilaration that I’ve never really been able to capture anywhere but a summit.

I later found out that TF’s parents were from South Africa and in the early 1950s, when they were in their 20s and had been married for four years, had travelled to England, bought a 1933 London taxi for 50 pounds, and proceeded to travel 6,000 miles throughout Europe, camping along the way in their taxi. So many people asked them what they were doing they painted the facts about their journey on the outside of the vehicle – the media picked it up and the taxi became known as their traveling suitcase and they the “traveling suitcase couple.”

What a spirit of adventure! I’d say that TF – and all of us on this trip – were carrying on a bit of that legacy, even at much more advanced ages. I’m sure TF’s parents would approve.

But as I’ve frequently said before here, what goes up must come down – and so it was with this trip also. That’s for next time.

Back in the Saddle – Mount Baker Part One

It was the afternoon before the trek/climb. After visits with family and friends – and an absolutely gigantic lunch in Gig Harbor (perhaps I am taking the idea of carbo loading too far) – we got an Uber and headed off to the Georgetown Inn in the Georgetown area of South Seattle. Known for being “gritty,” there are a lot of breweries and some interesting restaurants, but it is a long way from gentrification. The hotel had been recommended by our guiding company, but the desk clerk still seemed surprised to see our two very large backpacks walk into the lobby.

We located an Italian restaurant called Mezzanotte in what looked like a deconstructed building. Three levels of crumbling brick walls, ceiling tin covering some of them, and lots of people sitting outside. We were just as happy to sit inside and enjoy our fancy pasta – mine with king oyster mushroom Raghu and J’s with a very peppery sauce. We walked briefly around the neighborhood and back to our perfectly acceptable hotel – if a little noisy due to some bizarre mechanical noises that clicked and clacked throughout the night.

We woke up at 5:30 and met S, our friend from Alaska who was part of our Elbrus and Stok Kangri expeditions, in the lobby. We all ubered off to the Mountain Madness office, accompanied by three very large packs. The MM office is in a small house and there seemed to be at least three trips all packing up in various areas outdoors. Fortunately we found our correct group (I suppose otherwise we might have inadvertently gone ice climbing or something).

We met our fellow climbers – T, who is S’s friend and a pilot, two women from Canada (about my age or a bit older), and our guides, SH and H. Having nicely packed our packs, we now had to completely unpack, and lay everything out on the ground so our guides could confirm we had what we needed and left behind what we didn’t need. Apparently all of us had panicked when we got the packing video only two days before, which had led to multiple unexpected last minute purchases such as glacier glasses and sun hoodies! Two items, by the way, that I was very glad to have.

Everyone ended up leaving behind at least some items. I ditched my rain pants and second pair of pants. We reloaded our packs (my guess is mine was about 32-33 pounds), and met our porters, C, a Montana State student who was really serious about the mountains , and Z, a mid 20s exmilitary guy who was really serious about his sugar addiction. Z became best known on the trip for his hiking kilt – all he needed was a sporran!

After our packing and repacking extravaganza, we all loaded into the van, packs atop and in the back. We were enjoying trading travel stories with S, when just outside of Seattle he received a call to let him know there was a family medical emergency. S understandably felt he had to return to Alaska and pick up his wife so they could go where they were needed, so he ended up taking an Uber back to the airport. What a disappointment – this had been one of his bucket list trips. His friend T was a super good sport about it, and things were greatly eased by the fact that we really did have a congenial group.

We started off yet again, making a few bathroom and snack breaks. Z proceeded to sample every variety of junk food known to man (or at least available in Washington State), and I even found myself buying a large chocolate bar. Maybe it’s contagious.

Finally we turned off onto a series of dirt roads, gaining altitude over some teeth shattering potholes that sent the whole van rattling. We entered the Mt. Baker National Recreation Area, and traveled along more dirt roads, ultimately meeting up with all the vans and cars of other Mt. Baker adventurers. Vehicles were parked way down the road, but we were totally lucky and someone vacated a spot right by the trailhead. One final bathroom break in our last real bathroom and we were off!

Our merry band

The trail starts off as an easy walk, even with a crushed gravel trail in some spots, but rapidly starts a somewhat unrelenting slope up. There are a fair number of dried out rocky river beds to navigate, tree roots to clamber over, and stone steps to climb. You first hike alongside the towering dark evergreens that stalk the trail; after some elevation gain the trees give way to shorter growth and meadows spotted with pink, purple, and white bell shaped flowers. I would have loved to use my plant identification app but there was no cell service and we weren’t stopping much anyway.

After a while, we reached the portion of the trail known as “Railroad Grade.” It’s a very skinny, straight ridge line that leads to Sandy Camp, which was to be our home for the next three nights. It is on an incline, although not particularly steep, but there is a lot of exposure. One side is a sheer drop down of rock and gravel caused by the receding Easton Glacier; the other side is a slightly less sheer drop into a wild flower covered meadow. I would definitely have preferred to fall meadow side, but neither option was very appealing. At times the path was barely a foot wide and you had to navigate over rock. At some point it must have been wider, making the trail look like a railroad track – hence the name, I presume.

Once we finished the Railroad Grade it was a short jaunt to camp (although maybe jaunt isn’t the right word when you’re lugging heavy packs). Sandy Camp is a small bowl quite close to the edge of the glacier and partly on and off snow banks. It’s somewhat sheltered from the wind – although wind was almost nonexistent while we were there anyway.

SH and H set up tents and we helped shovel snow to flatten out the foundation. As the temperature warmed and snow melted we ultimately found ourselves camping on quasi-islands. SH had to move his entire tent the next day because it turned out he was on a pond! C and Z, in the meantime, had to hike back to the lot to pick up their personal gear for the mountain and return again that same night. What a long day! Altitude gain was about 2300 feet.

After we settled in, we had a dinner of Mac’n cheese and smoked salmon and hiked up to a nearby bluff to see a spectacular sunset. On one side are the majestic mountains of the Cascades, on the other, the glassy ocean with Vancouver Island in the background. The setting sun backlit the clouds and snow capped mountains turning everything a soft apricot. It was a good omen for the next day and our upcoming summit attempt.

Upcoming – Mt Baker Awaits

This is going to be short. And no photos. I’m afraid I’ve given FromSwampToSummit short shrift recently. A and N’s wedding presented its own summit; followed by adventures in Vermont (think that old Bob Newhart show), and on mountains and around race tracks in Saratoga Springs. So much content to come!

But in the meantime – we leave for Mt Baker next Wednesday. The hike in starts Friday; Saturday is skill training (which we need since it’s been 4 years since we donned our crampons), and we should leave about 2 or 3 am Sunday morning for the summit. Hike out on Monday.

At 10,880 feet Baker is the third higheat mountain in Washington State and extremely glaciated. While it is way lower than many mountains we’ve climbed it’s the most elevation gain in one day – 4500 feet.

So, now the typical pre mountain jitters are surrounding me. Did I train enough? Will I be able to get my crampons on? (Pointy side down as my brother says.) What if there’s a crevasse and I can’t get across it? What about some of the creeks to ford on day 1? What if I’m so slow on day 1 they say I can’t go up the summit? And, God forbid, what if I step on the rope as we are going up the summit? (Those of you have climbed understand the shame that brings.)

Anyway, I’ve done this enough to know that fear is a healthy thing – as long as it doesn’t become overwhelming. So here’s to staying in the present, one step at a time, and a good balance of being a tortoise most of the time and a hare when necessary.

And I promise more to come – and photos.

Never Say Never – Mt. Baker

S looked at me bemusedly. “Really? You swore you were never again going multi day backpacking where you carry your own stuff after the slog up Long’s Peak.” His words resonated as I found myself buying my fifth or so back pack – this time a 70 liter one. It towers over me.

All it took was a late afternoon chat with SB, of Elbrus and Stok Kangri fame. Steps on the Summit The Trek to Base Camp, Stok Kangri, Ladakh, India As we commiserated about our lack of adventure and travel over the pandemic, SB noted that Mt Baker in the northern cascades had always been on his bucket list. A few internet searches later we were all signed up for a Mountain Madness four day trip up Mt Baker’s Easton Glacier route in August.

In deference to our advancing age we are taking the slow route (relaxed, they call it, I guess like a fit of pants) and there are others who haul up the tents, cooking equipment etc. You “only” have to carry 30 or 35 pounds, but it’s too much bulk for my 53 liter pack.

So, it’s back to training for us. I did stairs twice last week and am forcing myself to run when I can stand it. J’s various Achilles issues seem to have resolved and he’s back to basketball.

But we are really hoping to get more outdoor hiking in….and yesterday was a good start with a beautiful walk in the Lake Proctor wilderness near Geneva, Florida with S and M. It’s a generally shady trail with Florida scrub on one side and views of a small lake on the other. The weather was spectacular- blue skies and in the 70s and we took our time and relished just being outdoors. There was even enough standing water to wade through and around to make S happy. Should all training hikes be so pleasant!

Our Mt Elbrus guide described Baker as a mini Elbrus so I guess it’s appropriate we are doing it with SB. Hopefully I’ve learned some things over the last 9 years and this time will make sure I have sun screen lip balm, not chapstick in my pocket.

Yes, that’s zinc sunscreen but none on my lips.